"BRONWYN HERBERT: It was Justin Berkhout's third visit to the emergency wards in a month, turned away twice before, because the hospital's psychiatric ward was full. On this day, his determined family travelled four hours to be by his side."
"YVONNE BERKHOUT, MOTHER: I went out and I told a nurse that Justin was thinking about hanging himself. And all I got was, 'We're looking after him.' So I believed that. And to this day I have regrets about that. I should have turned around and said, 'Well, I'm sorry, you aren't'."
"ADRIAN BERKHOUT: We were away at lunch and they give us a phone call and asked us to come back to the hospital as soon as we could. We thought, 'Oh, yeah. Not a problem. Look likes they might have finally organized a bed for him'."
"BRONWYN HERBERT: But Justin Berkhout had hanged himself behind a curtain in the emergency room."
Tragic death highlights mental health crisis
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Reporter: Bronwyn Herbert
Australian of the Year Professor Patrick McGorry has put mental health issues back in the spotlight. His appointment brings hope to those campaigning for an overhaul of the current mental health system. Such as the family of Justin Berkhout, who was forced to wait for more than 20 hours for treatment at a NSW regional hospital before he took his own life in July 2007.
KERRY O'BRIEN, PRESENTER: The announcement of prominent mental health reformer Professor Patrick McGorry as Australian of the Year has brought fresh focus on the tough issue of mental health. His appointment brings hope to those pushing for an overhaul of the present mental health system, such as the family of Justin Berkhout, who was forced to wait more than 20 hours for treatment at a NSW regional hospital before he took his own life in 2007.
The state's deputy coroner has blamed a lack of beds for mental health patients as a factor in the young man's suicide.
While one in seven Australians suffer some form of mental health illness, experts say the revolving door of paints in and out of the hospital system highlights a chronic shortfall of community care. Bronwyn Herbert reports.
JUSTIN BERKHOUT: G'day, Big Brother. My name's Justin and this my audition tape. This is home. This is where I live. Gonna tell you a little bit more about myself. Um, so, yeah, come with me.
Justin again here. Um, no, that's stupid.
A rogue, a Ned Kelly. We were always getting into trouble. Very fun loving.
ADRIAN BERKHOUT, FATHER: Well-liked by anybody that he met. A real bubbly, outgoing personality. Loved everything.
BRONWYN HERBERT, REPORTER: Behind Justin Berkhout's big smile and bright spirit, was a darker side. The 29-year-old television cameraman fought depression for years. In 2007, he took a fist full of anti-depressants, ending up in the emergency department of Wagga Base Hospital.
ADRIAN BERKHOUT: They reckon they were trying to shuffle people around right, left and centre to try and make room for him. And 21 hours later, unfortunately he was still waiting for a bed.
BRONWYN HERBERT: It was Justin Berkhout's third visit to the emergency wards in a month, turned away twice before, because the hospital's psychiatric ward was full. On this day, his determined family travelled four hours to be by his side.
YVONNE BERKHOUT, MOTHER: I went out and I told a nurse that Justin was thinking about hanging himself. And all I got was, "We're looking after him." So I believed that. And to this day I have regrets about that. I should have turned around and said, "Well, I'm sorry, you aren't."
ADRIAN BERKHOUT: We were away at lunch and they give us a phone call and asked us to come back to the hospital as soon as we could. We thought, "Oh, yeah. Not a problem. Look likes they might have finally organised a bed for him."
BRONWYN HERBERT: But Justin Berkhout had hanged himself behind a curtain in the emergency room.
Two years on, the deputy state coroner Paul MacMahon found that the hospital had only 54 per cent of the beds it should and this was a factor in Justin Berkhout's death.
PAUL MACMAHON, DEPUTY NSW CORONER (5 Nov., 2009, male voiceover): "All the evidence available to me in the inquest was that there is a shortage of mental health beds and the attendant nursing staff which goes with such beds. That shortage … in my view was contributing factor to the death of Mr Berkhout."
JOE MCGIRR, GREATER SOUTHERN HEALTH: The care we provided to Justin and his family was not adequate, and I'd like to once again publicly acknowledge that and apologise to his family.
BRONWYN HERBERT: Wagga is a six-hour drive from Sydney in the heart of the NSW Riverina. Wagga's 20-bed psychiatric ward is stretched to serve the region's half a million residents.
The manager of the Greater Southern Area Health Service, Joe McGirr, says there are plans for 10 more beds.
JOE MCGIRR: I mean, it would be nice to suddenly make beds available across if state that are needed. But clearly, you know, that will depend on funding and funding has to be organised.
ADRIAN BERKHOUT: Having somebody that went in on suicide waiting for 21 hours for a bed is just not good enough.
BRONWYN HERBERT: The Mental Health Council of Australia says the Berkhout family tragedy is not an isolated case. Emergency departments around the country are spilling over with patients admitted with mental illnesses.
DAVID CROSBIE, MENTAL HEALTH COUNCIL: We could create another 1,000 acute hospital beds tomorrow and they'd be full within a month and it'd be really difficult for people to still get access to acute mental health beds.
BRONWYN HERBERT: In Euroa, a three-hour drive north of Melbourne, Wendy Freeland says her psychotic son was in and out of the Victorian hospital system dozens of times.
WENDY FREELAND: If they have to take them, they keep them in as little time as possible. So the records look great, you have fewer admissions and shorter bed stays.
BRONWYN HERBERT: Jesse Freeland was discharged early from a Melbourne hospital, despite trying to kill both his father and brother. Just over a year ago, his battle came to an end.
WENDY FREELAND: I rang the team and said look, I'm really concerned. He's already had one attempt. And I'm really concerned about how he's going. That was on a Sunday night. And they said, "We'll talk to him." They asked him how he was and he said he was OK. And they said, look, we'll send someone round in the morning, and of course he killed himself that morning, so … too late.
BRONWYN HERBERT: The Mental Health Council says the answer to averting such tragedies is through better community care, allowing peop
le to get help before it's too late.
DAVID CROSBIE: The latest research suggested over 40 per cent of people in acute mental health beds would not be there if we could discharge them to appropriate communally-based beds.
BRONWYN HERBERT: This community care facility in suburban Canberra was set up specifically to help those suffering mental health issues. The ACT and Victoria are leading the way in providing such facilities, but all states and territories fall short of what the Mental Health Council says is adequate. That's 30 beds for every 100,000 people.
DAVID CROSBIE: I think the availability of mental health services in rural and remote regions is a real problem that we have yet to really address. Many of these kinds of communally-based bed options, though, don't require really expensive investment and can be done on a small scale, even in a suburban house. So I think we can provide options at a regional level that's going to be closer to where people live.
BRONWYN HERBERT: David Crosbie says the Commonwealth has made billion-dollar investments in mental health, but what's still missing are options to keep people at risk out of the hospital system.
DAVID CROSBIE: I think it's time that we seriously thought about a Commonwealth takeover of community-based treatment options for people with a mental illness. Because the kinds of services that we desperately need are currently largely a state responsibility and the states are saying they either don't have the resources or the capacity to provide the number of community-based treatment beds we need in this country.
BRONWYN HERBERT: For the Berkhout family, the battle for more beds will continue. They say they'll fight all the way to Parliament House in Canberra.
ADRIAN BERKHOUT: It's alright if you got a broken leg. People like to turn around and bend over backwards to help ya. If you got a mental health problem, nobody wants to know ya. That's as easy as that.
YVONNE BERKHOUT: I don't want to see another family have to turn off that life support machine. That was the hardest decision we had to make. And if I can save another family going through that, I will.
KERRY OB'RIEN: That report from Bronwyn Herbert and producer Alison Middleton. And for more information on depression, you can visit www.beyondblue.org.au, or if you need counselling or urgent assistance, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14.